Intrigued by a viral video on the internet, American podcaster Wallace (Justin Long) heads up to Canada to interview the star of the video. When the interview, for good reason, falls through, Wallace becomes determined to not leave Canada empty-handed, especially considering his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) didn’t want him to go in the first place, and his podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), would never let him hear the end of it.
Thus Wallace thinks himself lucky when he finds a handbill offering free lodging and stories of seafaring adventure from a mysterious Howard Howe (Michael Parks), and ventures into the remote Canadian wilderness to meet up with the strange man. Unfortunately, Wallace is about to find out how unlucky he truly is, as Howe is as insane as he is charismatic, with an extremely disturbing agenda and an affinity for walruses.
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. If you’d like to know more, the info is out there (many of you probably already knew more than you should before you started reading this review), but I went into the film knowing fairly little and it made for one weird, trippy experience. If you can give yourself the same experience, please do so.
Kevin Smith’s Tusk is a case of fearless filmmaking. It’s a filmmaker taking a pretty nutty idea and running it as far out as they can take it, in whatever directions that idea decides to take. It’s a film that exists because the filmmaker wanted to see that film, so he made it; you’d think that’d be the common motivation of most filmmaking endeavors, but so often films can get murky or complicated by outside considerations (casting, audience expectations, etc) that can undermine the original inspiration. Not so here; Tusk takes full advantage of the freedom that can come with independent filmmaking, especially considering the film was conceived during a podcast, and pushed into production thanks to positive feedback in the form of a Twitter hashtag.
This is also a film that is hyper-aware of itself, but I was getting so caught up in the experience to the point where I kept forgetting how aware it truly was. When it was all over, you can’t help but look back and think that it was insane, the whole premise is so very odd, the characters a mix of outlandish and relatable, yet I bought into it. All of it, even at its most absurd.
The ease in which you fall into the film’s groove is predominantly due to the performances. Of course Michael Parks is incredible (more on him in a second), but it’s important to note that everyone delivers something strong. Justin Long plays full-on American prick for most of the film, but you still feel for the guy when things turn bad. More so you feel for his girlfriend, played by Genesis Rodriguez, who has an outstanding and tearful monologue in the film that completely redefines the emotional engagement with the material.
Michael Parks continues to prove his exceptional talent, versatility and willingness to go all out for whatever role he takes on. When you consider some of the things he says, let alone his actions, it’s amazing how natural he makes it all feel; it works because he commits so strongly. It doesn’t feel that absurd until you let hindsight creep in; you believe every inch of it in the moment. At the end of the day, I’m not even entirely sure we know exactly who that character is; we have to take his word for it in all situations, and he proves to be an unreliable narrator at best. Crazy, evil, lonely… who is Howard Howe, really?
This inability to pin down the character extends to the whole film, when I think about it. It has horror elements, sure, but it’s also pretty funny. It is absurd, but it also has some powerful dramatic elements. It’s a tonal ride that is all over the place, and it may just be putting you on the whole time. It has a subversive vibe of constant uneasiness; it’s a very unique ride.
The ex-post production supervisor in me thinks it could use some tightening in spots. One sequence with private investigator Guy LaPointe lingers too much for my tastes, for example, but it’s hard to get too critical there because, considering the character, and the looks on the other characters’ faces, feeling some exasperation with the guy is arguably the entire point. Pacing-wise, the film is a series of gear shifts, so it fits in with the odd rhythm of the piece. Considering how the story plays out, and the different perspectives, Howe is not the only unreliable narrator to be found, which adds another layer of complexity.
If this review feels like a rambling, stream of consciousness reaction to the film, in many ways it is, but so is the nature of the film. It follows the whimsy and curiosity of the filmmaker, and not audience expectations. At the same time, again, the film could not be anymore hyper-aware of itself. The more I think about what some things could mean, or not mean, the more I need to see it again. It’s common for me to see a flick and, the more I think on it, the less I like it. Not so with Tusk; the more I ponder, the better it becomes.